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A plague on all their houses

The economy in Britain and much of the world is in dire straits and it would not be an exaggeration to say we have entered a period of history that far from being a ‘crisis of capitalism’, historians looking back may well call it the ‘crisis of regulatory statism’.

And that is what makes the current UK elections… and indeed the recent US election… so utterly uninteresting.

Political parties on both sides of the imaginary left/right divide are in near total agreement that question at hand is not “how do we change the state of affairs that got us into our current predicament” but rather “how do we manage this crisis best in order to preserve the status quo”. The one thing that everyone in politics agrees on is Britain’s vast regulatory welfare state is an immovable given. This is literally beyond debate and exists at the meta-contextual level …all that is actually up for discussion is how best to preserve it.

Commentary in the mainstream media accepts as axiomatic that the parties represent the struggle between laissez faire and regulation, between capital and labour, between right (whatever that means) and left (whatever that means).

Indeed the parties themselves employ the same rhetorical markers to differentiate their products as they have always done: the so-called ‘conservatives’ speak of “prudence” and “responsibility” and “living within our means”… Labour and the LibDems speak in terms of “fairness” and “equality”… and these terms are simply accepted at face value and repeated by most of the media as if the choices on offer were between chalk and cheese, and as all the parties benefit from this differentiation, this linguistic legerdemain is unchallenged and uncontroversial.

Yet the choices on offer are in truth more akin to that between Coke or Pepsi… the ‘sacred rite of democratic empowerment’ actually comes down to being given the option of selecting rapist A, B or C and then being told not to complain when you get raped because, after all, you got to vote.

And so we see the media portraying David Cameron as Thatcher the Milk Snatcher reborn… a dangerous welfare wrecker when he states that he intends to, and I quote from a Daily Telegraph article last year:

Mr Cameron said he would increase government spending from £620bn this year to £645bn next year – rather than the £650bn proposed by ministers. He warned voters not to expect an incoming Tory administration to slash public spending and cut taxes, saying: “That’s not what they should be thinking. They should be thinking this would be a responsible government that would make government live within its means, that would relieve some of the debt burden being piled up on our children.”

So the Tory party, those slash-and-burn laissez faire wildmen, wanted to take £25 billion more out of the productive economy in taxes so that the state can spend it… at a time when the economy is actually contracting… and somehow that will relieve rather than increase the burden on “our children”. Yup, clearly an ardent capitalist is our Old Dave… it must be so because the media reports him saying he is all for markets largely without comment.

But the core truth here is that if by some dark miracle Brown’s Labour wins, we will have a vast regulatory welfare state. If the even more spendthrift LibDems win, we will have a vast regulatory welfare state. However if Cameron’s Tories win, we will have… a vast regulatory welfare state… oh, and fox hunting will be permitted again.

And yet the idea that there are meaningful differences between any of these gits is a given even though all they are really discussing is how their different approaches to rearranging the same elements can preserve the very state that got us where we are now. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

Nigel Farage of UKIP at least talks of sacking two million public sector workers and having a bonfire of the QUANGOs… making him the only half way visible politician making any truly radical statements at all. Sadly Farage also seems to think “quantitative easing”… i.e. just running the printing presses in order to re-inflate the very credit bubble that has been the trigger for much of the current woes, is just fine and dandy, so I do question his grasp of economics, not to mention causality… but by the standards of current discourse he is Ludwig Von Mises reborn and perhaps in time Pearson can smack some sense into him on that score.

But UKIP will not be running the next parliament and so it does not matter which of the three plonkers you vote for because in effect the same person will still be in 10 Downing Street: and that would be the ring-wraith-like presence of Tony Blair of course… or Tory Blair if you like… the name and party hardly matters because that grin remains like some demonic Cheshire Cat in the sky over Westminster.

cheshire_blair.jpeg

What did you say your name was again?

33 comments to A plague on all their houses

  • jdm

    The economy in Britain and much of the world is in dire straits and it would not be an exaggeration to say we have entered a period of history that far from being a ‘crisis of capitalism’, historians looking back may well call it the ‘crisis of regulatory statism’.

    That’ll probably depend on who is writing the history. I would assert that the regulatory statists along with their friends and fellow travelers in the media and academia are in a much better position to control “the narrative” than capitalists and theirs.

    Nonetheless, while I agree with all of your points and much of the sentiment; I find it all very interesting, fascinating even, in an awful car-crash sort of way.

  • Brad

    The root of the problem lies in the adage “you get the government you deserve”. If the majority of the people are unable to grasp the gravity of our fiscal crises, they will continue to take the fight between their two choices down to the standard differences – e.g. in the U.S. – guns, gays, and abortion.

    To some extent the Average Joe cannot be blamed for not understanding our fiscal crises because they aren’t conditioned to think of them, and if they were so inclined they are numbed to it by all the continuing talk of deficits and debt etc. that have been going on for decades now. Fiscal matters have become rhetorical for most people so they are not aware that we are now right at the precipice, no more margin left.

    Speaking for the U.S. all the ingredients are now in place. We are due for a major economic/market collapse and we cracks beginning to show in our national unity. I can easily see that the border States with Mexico are going to take direct measures to protect the borders which will instill a measure of independence. As economic productivity spirals downwards, and organized Force fractures over regional concerns, we will see the old model fade. The question for me is will it mean the end of the Statist hey day, or will the State(s) resort to harsher versions that history is filled with examples of.

  • Good post! You describe the situation well but you do not offer any explanation for the state of affairs you observe. Why is the choice between Coke or Pepsi? Why will we be left with a vast regulatory welfare state regardless of who wins?
    What are the processes, factors etc that have led to this situation?

  • Ian B

    Just prior to wandering into your front room here Perry, I was sadly calling up various years on this chart thingy of government expenditure over the years and decades, and making myself immensely depressed by so doing. When Blair came to power, they were spending £350bn or so. They’re now spending about £300bn more. And they’re talking about maybe cutting £5bn.

    And earlier today I noticed an article in I think the Telegraph proudly boasting of house price “growth”. Home come it’s growth, not inflation, when it’s house prices going up? Why is that?

    The disconnect from reality described in your excellent article is terrifying.

  • Ian B

    Erratum: it was £318bn in 1997, not £350bn.

  • Schrodinger's Dog

    Perry,

    The reason the British have a choice at this election of three regulatory statist parties is because that is what people want. Political parties conduct focus groups and opinion polls ad nauseam: you can be sure that if there were pent-up demand for smaller government, someone would be offering it.

    Much as it must pain the majority of readers of this blog, people like big government. The public generally accepts that, were it not for the government, children, the poor and the elderly would be uncared for and people would be left to starve in the streets. Meanwhile, employers would be free to slash pay and benefits, sack people at will and discriminate against anyone they happened to dislike.

    How this might be changed – or whether change is even possible – I do not know. A friend told me she would never vote for the conservatives, becuase they are the party of selfishness and greed. And that’s after nearly five years of husky-hugging, user-friendly iDave at the helm; Were a Thatcherite in charge she’d probably dismiss them as a bunch of baby-eaters.

    Unless attitudes do change – and support for smaller government has never exceeded 10% of the population – I see the current situation ending in one of two ways. The optimistic scenario is that people accept massive tax hikes – and it’s worth noting the state is already far bigger than even the early twentieth century Fabians advocated. Perhaps people are more collectivist than is supposed; perhaps they will accept handing over the majority of their income to the state for it, in its benevolence, to distribute as it sees fit. What’s left will be, effectively, pocket money for them to spend on treats for themselves. The pessimisitc scenario is the West will suffer the same kind of economic collapse which overtook the Soviet Union.

    Probably our job should be to try and propogate the idea that smaller government can be an appealing proposition, although it will undoubtedly be a monumentally difficult task.

  • Ian B

    Schrodinger’s Dog-

    I have this unpleasant little hypothesis that keeps niggling at me, which is that maybe we are simply too early in history for liberty. That is, like some little cabal of atheists in the 14th century. It’s possible that there is simply an historical process- effectively a deterministic process, once underway- which has to play out.

    The central problem for us is ironic; the Statists accuse libertarians of being selfish, and short termist. In fact, libertarianism (certainly in economic terms) is a genuine philosophy of the greater good; that is, Libertarianism is good for society as a whole. Statist policies are successful precisely because they appeal to the selfish, short term interest at the expense of the collective good.

    Effectively, ordinary people are given a choice between, “you can have £100 now” and “most people will probably get £1000 some time in the future”. To take the certain £100 now is a very rational choice, if you’re poor. It is hard to convince a starving man that his starvation is worth it for future economic prosperity, simply put.

    I actually do believe, since the human future is very long, and we are living in a tiny sliver at the very beginning, that liberty will come. But I doubt very much I’ll live to see any glimmer of it. It may well be that tyranny and misery are inevitable for any civilisation at our stage of development.

  • Alice

    Schrodinger’s cat’s friend wrote: “you can be sure that if there were pent-up demand for smaller government, someone would be offering it.”

    No, SchroDog – we can’t be sure of that. Not at all. There are obvious existing market failures (although most seem to have a link to left wing politics).

    Think of the financial success of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”. In a normal market, that would have been followed up by other profit-hungry film-makers retelling the stories of a thousand saints who have been ripped to pieces over history. If Political Correctness prevents film-makers from making movies acknowledging civilization’s Christian past, they could at least have made a movie about Big Mo. But no. Nothing.

    Think of the ratings success of Fox News. In anythng like a rational market, the owners of ABC-CBS-CNN-etc would long since have called in their executives and given them 30 days to come up with a plan to reverse their declining audiences. But no. The alphabets just continue broadcasting the same old pap to an ever-declining audience.

    There are demonstrably underserved audiences out there. That means there are profit opportunity being missed. Why?

    Whatever reason explains why supposed red-blooded capitalists are turning their backs on profit opportunities, I suspect the same rationale is behind why no-one is seeking the polticial “profit” of offering less intrusive government.

  • Ian B

    It’s down to morals, Alice. We live in a society with a strong- and, once more, strengthening- moral hegemony. People are reluctant to do that which is not moral, due to the social and economic penalties of being immoral. There’s a lot of money to be made from brothelkeeping, but “good citizens” don’t want to be associated with it, even in those jurisdictions where it is legal. Because it is immoral.

    Likewise, it is immoral to be “right wing”. It is immoral to not actively support the progressivist moral code. So most businesses, citizens etc don’t want to be seen “pandering” to the immoral. Calling for small government is immoral too. Same thing.

    There are very few red-blooded capitalists, at least at the top level. They are as obligated as we- more so in many ways- to be moral persons. To be a captain of industry is to be one of society’s “leaders” and that requires being very moral indeed. Mostly, they operate in the top social class, following its moral conventions and never questioning them. Roughly, those who do pander to the immoral, e.g. Limbaugh, or Fox News, are roughly on the same moral level as brothelkeepers, as far as the hegemony is concerned. As such, they do a roaring trade (for the same reason, very high demand and insufficient supply) but they are unlikely to be joined in their sordid trade by the moral majority.

    The easiest, and perhaps only sustainable, way to control a society is to control its morals. If you can do that, you can control everything.

  • There are jurisdictions in Britain where prostitution is legal?

  • Ian B

    Prostiitution is legal in Britain (in private) but brothelkeeping isn’t, and the harpies are having another go at total prohibition.

    But there are jurisdictions in America and Europe where brothels are legal.

  • The reason the British have a choice at this election of three regulatory statist parties is because that is what people want.

    And of course it has nothing to do with the self evident truth that a politician… as a professional… will always prefer to options that involves more rather than less politics, meaning that ‘libertarianism’ is not a political market niche that the majority of politicians would want to fill as it is an intrinsically anti-political market niche. The only time a libertarian gets into politics is to try and destroy something rather than develop a long term personal career.

    This means libbos are always at a disadvantage in any ‘positive’ political offering as the negative concept of liberty requires negative politics.

    Political parties conduct focus groups and opinion polls ad nauseam: you can be sure that if there were pent-up demand for smaller government, someone would be offering it.

    And they are just as worthless as commercial focus groups and opinion polls in that they are all built around self serving premises.

    Much as it must pain the majority of readers of this blog, people like big government. The public generally accepts that, were it not for the government, children, the poor and the elderly would be uncared for and people would be left to starve in the streets.

    Indeed. They accept that because they are told… ad nauseam… this is what would happen, as if charitable institutions did not exist prior to the progressive de facto nationalisation of private sector charity over the last sixty years.

    Meanwhile, employers would be free to slash pay and benefits, sack people at will and discriminate against anyone they happened to dislike.

    As indeed employers should be able to. But as the state causes so much of the unemployment and screwed up labour markets they seek to protect people against, I am left marvelling at people mistaking the cause of their woes for the solution to them.

    And in any case, it is activists, not ‘most people’ do decide ‘what people want’.

  • Nuke Gray

    Perry, I think that Democratic governments, of all types, are prone to never-ending expansion. Only a politician who wants to fix a ‘problem’ will be noticed- if a politician promises to do nothing, electors think that is being lazy. If a problem-solving politician does get elected, then the politician can claim a mandate to expand the state, as promised. Therefore, the state expands under democracies.
    some democracies have limits- the American constitution was an attempt to limit the center, and the Swiss Confederation was a good idea. However, centralism keeps on recurring. i think we need a new name for a new type of government or society. borrowing from Greek, I think EcoPolitism would have been good, because it should mean home-state, meaning that each home (and land) is a separate state.
    Perhaps we should just call our philosophy “landlordism”; if you own the land, you are the absolute lord of it, and all your private property- democracy can be limited to public properties. Any other landlordists out there?

  • BFFB

    I’ve always quite liked using Albert Lehninger’s description of evolutionary entropy for describing the evolution of governments. His idea was that the order produced in cells as they grow and divide was compensated by the disorder they create in their surroundings as a result.

    So, to extrapolate to government; when they first appear they have a high degree of disorder (minimal centralisation) and the result is more ordered environment, but as they evolve the become more ordered internally (more centralised) and the result is great disorder to the environment.

  • Derek Buxton

    Good article, we are certainly faced with three very similar parties, all statist backed by the media, especially the BBC and large companies. The information given to the people is therefore limited to the statist view. For example, the economy is only quietly mentioned, no idea of the problem posed, the EU our real government mentioned not at all and so on. As yet the full horror has not dawned on the people, they have their TV, football and the Lottery, only the more intelligent realise the full problem. Eventually it will dawn on most people and then there could be trouble, whoever is in power will then be the recipients of the backlash.

  • pete

    Recent history teaches us that Labour governments spend recklessly and Conservative governments don’t.

    So I’m voting Conservative. Even if the Conservatives want to spend as much as Labour I’m fairly confident it will be better spent. And of course there is no guarantee that Labour will actually stick to its promised spending levels. They’ll probably vastly exceed them and I don’t think there is as much chance of the Conservatives doing that.

    For anyone wanting any sort of control of public finances there really is only one way to vote this time, and that’s Tory.

  • BFFB

    It’s either a compliment or criticism; but the success of the tories re-branding means I have no idea. None. What they would do in power when it comes to spending.

  • Recent history teaches us that Labour governments spend recklessly and Conservative governments don’t.

    And what history is that? How is promising to increase expenditure at all when the economy is contracting *not* reckless? Or are you saying:

    1. Dave Cameron is *not* going INCREASE state expenditure during this recession (i.e. he was lying when he said he would increase the state’s expenditure to £645 billion).

    or…

    2. He is indeed going to make the state bigger than it already is… but £645 billion is sensible but £650 billion is reckless?

    So please explain your reason we should vote for Dave Cameron.

  • Alice

    Ian B wrote: “We live in a society with a strong- and, once more, strengthening- moral hegemony.”

    Thanks for your insight, Ian B. That is a great way of linking the failure of capitalists to exploit obvious market opportunities to the failure of politicians to exploit obvious political opportunities.

    Thinking about it some more, perhaps the words should not be “moral hegemony”.

    It can’t be moral — not in a world where English culture celebrates Page 3 girls, bling, WAGs, soccer hooliganism, Cardiff drinking, and single motherhood. People can do what they want, but all of those are completely devoid of any “moral” content at all.

    Maybe the issue is “fashion hegemony” rather than “moral hegemony”?

  • BFFB

    Political hedgemony is better. I don’t think there is much that relates to morals, principals or even philosophies. It may once have done, but that link is broken and is now nothing but intertia; we will think this way because that is the way that was taught, and from that point it’s turtles all the way down.

  • Ian B

    Alice, in my view anti-racism, anti-sexism, gay rights, greenism etc etc are the new moral hegemony (sorry to use Marxist terminology but sometimes it is useful) and are currently on the ascendent.

    I don’t think our culture “celebrates” Page 3 girls or boozing; certainly the new priesthood don’t. Temperance is back in a big way with panics on smoking, “binge” drinking, being fat, etc. And I’ve read that just recently Harperson and Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dim) have declared an intention to ban Page 3.

    The ruling classes have lapsed back into a very Victorian moralism and have been heading that way since the 70s. When Broon casually called Mrs Duffy a “bigot” he was expressing that moralist fervour; anyone who disagrees with their moral values is an unspeakable person. People I think underestimate the moral nature of PeeCee because some of its moral values are apparently “liberal” (in terms of previous moral codes); most obviously gay “rights”. But moralism is moralism even when the particular values are, in one’s own view, immoral; the Islamists are intense moralists, even if we find many of their values repulsive.

    The general idea is to pull everybody, and every organisation, etc, onto the same moral code. And they’ve largely succeeded. Hence you get situations like the recent one in which a Christian man lost his job for refusing to “marriage” counsel gays. The Church (like it or not) used to be the decider and guardian of moral values. That role has now passed to the State, and churches, like everybody else, must fall into line.

  • Ian B

    Clarification: “Victorian” in the sense of being a very strong moral code, which everyone is expected to follow, not necessarily in terms of specific moral values that code represents (e.g. the new code is very different to the Victorian code in terms of race, gays, the role of women, patriotism, the military and so on).

  • Crawdad

    ytheleus,

    I believe Tocqueville laid it out over a century ago.

  • renminbi

    It will be interesting to see the confusion in the moralists when Moslems decide to beat up homosexuals.

  • rvastar


    The Church (like it or not) used to be the decider and guardian of moral values. That role has now passed to the State, and churches, like everybody else, must fall into line.

    This is right on the money, Ian B.

    While the Left has always sold itself as the purveyors of economic “justice”, it’s more accurate to state that they are purveyors of economic jealously.

    The world is a place of economic scarcity, wherein human beings compete for those scarce resources. It is simple natural law that a small minority of individuals will accumulate more per capita than the remaining majority; unfortunately, it is also natural law that this fact will engender resentment and jealously amongst those with less. And for 300 years now, the Left has been preying on that jealously in order to agitate for political power.

    But in addition to the economic (phsyical) dimension of life, there is also a spiritual dimension. In the West, that spiritual dimension (i.e. Christianity) always served as a bulwark against economic resentment and jealously, thus stymying the Left’s efforts at sowing dischord and revolution. As such, Christianity needed to be dismantled. To that effect, you have Lenin’s proclamation that “Our program necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism” and Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s call for a “march through the institutions” of the West.

    It wasn’t enough to prey on a human being’s economic jealousies; the Left also needed to destroy that human being’s capacity for moral discomfort at indulging his/her resentments and jealousies. It’s to this end that the Left has been waging an all-out assault on traditional Christian/Western norms and values for the past 100 years. As Matthew said, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”…and the Left knows this.

    Unfortunately, it would seem that the Left has succeeded in it’s efforts, particularly well in Western Europe. I fear that we are witnessing the fulfillment of Santayana’s warning that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” A coming economic collapse, racial/ethnic tensions, and the ensuing fear and desperation that will arise: all of the ingredients are there for the re-emergence of European “strong man” politics.

    I fear for your countries.

  • Barnacle Bill

    This sort of comment always brings to mind this quote from Dr. Strangelove:

    Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless *distinguishable*, postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.

    I’m sorry but there is a distinguishable difference between being governed by the “center right” and the left – that of the frying pan vs the fire. The US is certainly seeing this since we replaced “compasionate conservative” Bush & the pork-adicted GOP Congress with The Won and the Reid-Pelosi Dem Congress – a vaste expansion of government’s already excessive role in health care done, energy rationing and a vaste expansion of government’s already excessive role in financial markets in the works. Anybody who thinks we’d have gotten that anyway under McCain and a GOP Congress is deluded.

  • Mike

    Fascinating column. The problems Western democracies face are all similar. We are all just in different stages of the crisis. I am of the opinion that political and social problems are very often moral problems. The government takes over the care of the elderly and poor and encourage people to abandon their previous moral responsibility to their fellow man. Why caer about the least of your brothers when a government worker is paid to do it?

    I am an American, but I have an interest in British government and politics because we share a common heritage. The solution I love, and which will never be implemented world wide, is the abolition of professional legislatures. In Texas, the legislature can only meet every other year for a few months. They also receive a very small salary, less than $10,000, for their services. This ensures that the people who go to Austin have an independent source of income and have to deal with the laws they pass. We still have excellent roads, schools better than those in liberal states like California, and police. We do not have the big technocrats.

    I am all for a libertarian resurgence in the West so long as it is coupled with a moral resurgence as well. What kept the peace for so many centuries was not law but social norms and culture. Drunkeness was not illegal at all times, but the town drunk was a pariah and shunned. He could still drink, but the clucking of the town nags discouraged others from following his path.

  • Laird

    I don’t disagree with anything there, Mike, but I think you’re placing far too much faith in the “abolition of professional legislatures” idea. Here in South Carolina our legislature meets (officially) for only about 5 months per year* (which admittedly is longer than in Texas), and the base annual salary for rank-and-file Members is $10,400. Obviously that’s not enough to live on, so most of them are lawyers in small practices, or self-employed businessmen, or independently wealthy, or retired. Nonetheless, it’s a highly desirable position; it’s not unusual to see some of them spend $100k campaigning for a $10k job! That’s because, given our unusual Constitution (with a strong legislature and weak Governor, an artifact of Reconstruction) our General Assembly is very powerful, and it causes every bit as much mischief as you see in states with full-time “professional” legislatures.

    The solution isn’t merely to limit their sessions, or to cut their pay (although obviously both would be important steps, especially at the federal level), but to curtail their power. And I don’t know any way to do that short of rewriting the constitutions (federal and state) to start over. Over time they’ll manage to grab it back, of course (power accretes!), but that would be posterity’s problem.

    * The legislative session runs from early January to the beginning of June. Of course, there are committees which manage to meet year-round, and there are various cabals and factions meeting at other times to craft legislation for introduction in the next session.

  • Thomass

    Or of social democrats…

  • the ‘sacred rite of democratic empowerment’ actually comes down to being given the option of selecting rapist A, B or C and then being told not to complain when you get raped because, after all, you got to vote.

    If you don’t like any of the parties/candidates, you can actually set up one yourself or stand yourself, you know.

  • If you don’t like any of the parties/candidates, you can actually set up one yourself or stand yourself, you know.

    Sure, and the entrenched existing party systems will undoubtedly invite representatives of the Samizdata Party to debate them on TV and not use arcane rules to control donations or try to bankrupt us if we start to actually get votes… :-)

  • Laird

    I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!

    (Link)

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Perry.

    British politics is presently pointless.

    For example, the mess of “proper regulation of the banks [on top of the endless national and INTERNATIONAL, Basel II, regulation that already exsists], a bank levy [yet more taxes] and getting the banks lending again [in contradiction to the “bank levy” and a total failure to understand that wild credit bubble lending is the PROBLEM NOT THE SOLUTION]” all this is……..

    The policy is the Conservative party. The other major parties (i.e. the parties with the money and number of people to make a difference over the next few hours) have much the same policy. There is no CHOICE on offer.

    As for the United States in 2008.

    John McCain (for all his faults) for a moment understood TARP – he understood it as the wild spending corruption it was (he said so), 800 billion (“million with a B” as the saying goes) Dollars of money to special interests. A zillion times more than all the “earmarks” in history.

    For a moment John McCain understood all this and said so – AND THEN HE ENDORSED TARP.

    Politics was pointless after than point and the election was a sick joke.

    And one man made it so – not Barack Obama with his slick dishonest speeches, not the “mainstream” media with their endless collectivist propaganda, not the “education system” of brainwashing schools and colleges.

    No, no, no.

    One man and one man alone made politics pointless in the United States in late 2008 – and that man was Senator John McCain. He deprived the United States (the foundation of the West – the nation without which the West can not stand) of a CHOICE.